Is this a dream? Bonjour! from someone who still can’t believe they’re in France by Hannah Hanes

Bonjour tout le monde! I’m Hannah, a sophomore studying here in France at the University of La Rochelle.  I double major in French & Francophone Studies—of course—and English (with a concentration in Creative Writing). And I think it’s important that you know that when I first looked into this program in La Rochelle, I had little intention of actually going. Sure, I wanted to study abroad, but the idea of traveling halfway across the globe with my feeble language skills was almost too terrifying to consider. Maybe I’d just wait a year or two, yeah? Evidently, the idea was not terrifying enough.

I’m not going to lie to you, French and I have had a rough history. This time eighteen months ago I wasn’t even planning on taking a language at university. But after my first semester of a college-level course, one in which everyone actually wanted to improve their skills, all that changed. Rather abruptly everything fell into place. I fell in love with the rhythmic, fluid beauty of the romantic language and the satisfaction of slowly but surely learning another tongue. I decided to set myself in the direction of fluency and declared a minor in French, then undeclared it and re-declared it as a major. Somehow, I then found myself submitting an application for, confirming my participation in, and buying plane tickets to a semester abroad. At that point, none of it seemed real; none of it felt real even as I was boarding my flight, or exiting the Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, or arriving on the TGV in La Rochelle. Even still, none of this feels real.

And yet, despite still feeling as though this is just a dream, I’ve been able to settle in here better than I could have imagined. One of the key reasons for that, and a key reason why it’s so popular, is how this particular language program is so well established. The College of Charleston has been sending French learners to this city for years now and the university here is well-accustomed to helping its international students navigate living in a different country for the first time. Furthermore, the program includes living with a host family, which means that for the whole semester you are living in a French home learning not only language, but culture and way of life from as close up as you can get, totally immersed.

Before coming here, my abilities in oral comprehension were unnervingly limited. So, my biggest aim of this semester is improving upon those skills. And because the nature of this program, in the past three weeks alone, I’ve noticed a significant difference in the way I participate in conversations and the growing complexity of those conversations. The key has been having classes of international students where our only common language is French and using nightly hour-and-a-half dinners with my host to practice speaking. Living with a native French speaker and citizen has also helped supplement the bit of cultural research I did before coming here. She answers all my questions about peculiar societal rules, the world of turbulent European politics, and anything I could ever want to know about techno music.

But language and culture aren’t all I’m learning. I know this is a language program I’m talking about here, but the opportunity for personal development is perhaps as important. Living across the world from the only two communities I’ve ever known—my home and the College of Charleston— takes a lot of growing up real fast. It requires augmented independence, determination, and feeds curiosity with opportunities one is not normally afforded. I’m constantly throwing myself into unfamiliar situations, meeting new people, and getting out of my comfort zone. Studying abroad forces you into a new set of eyes through which to see the world, whether you want it to or not. And I’m taking full advantage of that while I’m here. I’ve already watched myself change for the better, and I’m excited to see where the rest of the semester takes me, both literally and metaphorically. So, welcome to France; welcome to my semester abroad. Follow along on all my adventures as I stumble through life halfway across the globe. Maybe it’ll inspire a travel-bug within you. And who knows, maybe you’ll surprise yourself like I did and a year from now be sitting in the same café I am right now, about to embark on a journey of your own.

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